Eight major internet search engines, including AltaVista, LookSmart and MSN.com, have been accused of using deceptive methods in an attempt to bolster their bottom lines.
HotBot, iWon.com, Lycos, Netscape and Direct Hit are the other services named in the complaint issued by Commercial Alert. The three-year old group, founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate whether eight of the web's largest search engines are violating federal laws against deceptive advertising.
"These search engines have chosen crass commercialism over editorial integrity," said Gary Ruskin, executive director at Commercial Alert.
In his letter to the FTC, Ruskin said that when the search engine companies first unveiled their engines, they did not include ads in the search results. Results were displayed based on objective criteria of relevancy tallied by algorithms.
According to Ruskin, some search engines in the past year have been "sacrificing editorial integrity for higher profits and began placing ads prominently in the results, but without clear disclosure of this practice".
He said that Commercial Alert is asking the FTC to make sure that no one is tricked by the search engines' descent into commercial deception.
The group said that the search engines are breaking the law by not making it clear that their results "are paid ads in disguise". The complaint concerns the practices of paid placement and paid inclusion without clean and conspicuous disclosure that the ads are, in fact, ads.
"If they are going to stuff ads into search results, they should be required to say that the ads are ads," Ruskin said.
According to Commercial Alert the practice has increased since the dotcom crash, which left many companies looking for ways to boost revenue.
Spokespersons at both LookSmart and AltaVista have denied the charges and other search engine companies did not respond.
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